Resurgent rock icon Michael McDonald headlines Belly Up Aspen
Michael McDonald is having a moment.
The 66-year old former Doobie Brother and Steely Dan member with the silky smooth voice may be a white-haired elder statesman of soft rock, but — quite suddenly and much to his surprise — McDonald also is being hailed as a hero by a new generation of musicians and fans.
His guest appearance with jazz-funk bassist Thundercat at Coachella in 2017 just about exploded the internet and became one of the biggest moments of the year in pop music. McDonald played their new song “Show You the Way” — co-written and recorded with McDonald, Thundercat and Kenny Loggins — along with the Doobie Brothers classic “What a Fool Believes.” He also showed up to much fanfare to do “What a Fool Believes” with Solange at Florida’s Okeechobee festival a month earlier in Florida. Mac DeMarco and Frank Ocean openly paid tribute to McDonald on their latest albums.
The rock icon has never gone away, but he hasn’t always been cool — his dramatically earnest and tender voice has been spoofed everywhere from “South Park” to “Saturday Night Live,” mocked in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” the web series “Yacht Rock” and the cover band Yacht Rock Revue. But all of a sudden, a new generation of 20- and 30-something listeners seems to have realized that Michael McDonald is awesome.
“No one is more surprised than me at the chain of events,” McDonald, who headlines Belly Up Aspen on Thursday, told the Aspen Times last year before playing the Jazz Aspen June Experience. “It’s been a real shot in the arm for me from a musical standpoint, working with Thundercat, Steve Bruner and getting to meet Mac.”
New fans found McDonald on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” harmonizing with Thundercat and Kenny Loggins on “Show You the Way” — the first time all three of them played the gentle R&B track together in public. In a music career spanning nearly 50 years since his early days gigging around St. Louis, McDonald has seen his share of peaks and valleys. His 2017 was undoubtedly a peak, including this millennial boom and a massive tour, and the release of the new album “Wide Open.”
For the first time in a while, McDonald said, he feels in tune with pop music.
“As the decades go by, there are times when you feel like everybody is speaking in a language you don’t understand,” McDonald said. “But then there’s always that moment where someone is standing in front of you and doing something you totally relate to and you feel like it has all the nuance and tradition of the music you have grown up with and loved since you can remember.”
The evening before we spoke, McDonald had been at a Ryan Adams show in Los Angeles. Musicians like Adams, bands like Grizzly Bear (another McDonald collaborator), and new friends like Thundercat, Solange and DeMarco, have renewed McDonald’s faith in music.
“There are always those artists that renew your faith in what pop music’s possibilities are,” he said.
A lifetime in music, of course, with moments on top of the world and others near the bottom, has also taught him to enjoy a zeitgeist-y run like this one.
“We’re happy it’s happening for as long as it’s going to happen,” he said. “The music business is one of those things that comes in waves. There’s always that ominous silence for a while that you have to adjust to again, and wherever the muse takes you, it’s anybody’s guess.”
For his Aspen show and his ongoing national tour, McDonald is coming armed with all of his solo hits, his Doobie Brothers songs and his popular Motown covers. And, for the first time in 18 years, he has some new originals to bounce off of his fans. “Wide Open” is an eclectic mix of R&B, country and gospel.
Among them is the standout “Free a Man.” It’s a funky political anthem and a call for equal rights that makes room for some grooving saxophone solos. It was written by Richard Stekol (“One of the best songwriters in America, for my money”). McDonald was working on it long before Donald Trump entered the presidential race and the fight for gay and women’s rights in America intensified. With a chorus of “Free a man and love will follow,” the song was an anthem waiting for a movement.
“It seems to be a conversation we’re having as a nation at this moment, and yet it’s also a conversation we’ve always been having,” McDonald said. “They seem to be the stumbling blocks to actually becoming the country that we say we are — actually living up to the Constitution and the inclusion we say we’re about.”
It’s an upbeat R&B composition, ready-made for live performance.
“I always envisioned it as the kind of song that would be fun to play at a jazz festival, because it’s lively, it’s kind of a jam song — everybody gets to play a solo,” he said.
Making the new record was less about some great artistic epiphany and more about the simple fact that McDonald built a studio in Nashville. Whenever he has an idea, or wants to cut a demo, he heads in there. The demos have steadily piled up until the young producer Shannon Forrest persuaded McDonald to release them (the record also includes guest spots form Warren Haynes, Robben Ford, Marcus Miller and Branford Marsalis).
“A lot of these songs were just from me sneaking into the studio randomly over the years,” McDonald explained. “I was writing them and we’d think of artists to send them to – kind of living the life of Nashville songwriters. Thinking someone like Bonnie Raitt would cut our songs, you know?”
Forrest fell in love with the songs as McDonald played them and told him, “I think you’ve got a record here.”
All this is to say that Michael McDonald is no oldies act. He’s as creatively alive as he’s ever been. Along with his loyal legions of baby boomer fans, he’s being hailed as a god by the generation that’s just discovering him. He’s got a vital new album on the way. He also plays regularly with his wife, Amy Holland, on the California coast.
“I’m 65 years old, but I’m enjoying life more than I ever have,” he said. “If you’re not enjoying yourself at this point, you’re missing the point.”
McDonald has long been a regular in Aspen, playing solo and with the Dukes of September (his supergroup with Donald Fagen and Boz Scaggs, which headlined Jazz Aspen’s June Fest five summers ago). He plays here whenever he gets the opportunity, he said. In fact, he almost ended up living in the Colorado high country.
When McDonald left his hometown of Ferguson, Missouri in the 1970s for California, he recalled, he stopped in Estes Park. There, he bunked up with a group of musician cowboys who made a living doing Old West shows and quick-draw contests. The siren song of the mountains almost kept him there.
“It was almost as far as I got,” he recalled. “I was so taken with the small-town mountain community and the beauty and this world that it engenders — knowing everyone in town and getting lost in that idyllic kind of experience. Whenever I think of Colorado, I think that could have been my last stop.”
Lucky for us, and for music history, McDonald kept going. He’s not stopping anytime soon.
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